Sumino is invisible. No one notices her at school, her classmates always leave her out of their groups, and her teachers barely notice when she’s gone. But on her blog she has friends who love looking at her pictures and provide advice for her everyday troubles. When one of the most popular boys in school finally notices her and admits he’s been watching her all along, Sumino must decide if she has the will to step out from the shadows and join her classmates in the light.
I Am Here is pretty short, only about 19 chapters from start to finish, but I think it manages to pack in a lot of interesting story and art that held me pretty well. To its credit, I think this is probably one of the only manga I have read so far where the internet played an integral role in the story. This allows it to create a great conversation surrounding the nature of friendship when it comes to reality vs the internet. By including this, I Am Here also takes a look at the differences and conflicts that can arise between online personas and real-life personalities. Combine this with some great and expressive art, and you have a pretty solid series that I think only really has a few minor flaws.
The art style for I Am Here is slightly old-school and very much shoujo. It uses many of the standard points of style you see in typical shoujo manga including: very large eyes, a slightly Moe style, and flowery or sparkly effects to create those heart-throb moments. But I think Ema Toyama does a great job pairing these more traditional effects with expressive emotions to create scenes with a surprising amount of tension. With the addition of panel design that’s fairly large and spaced out, Toyama leaves herself a lot of room to play with creating scenes of social tension and romance. She also makes use of full-page spreads and splashes to give more impact to certain scenes, and when these are combined with the more traditional effects it creates some great shoujo romance moments. However, though I don’t think this is anything good or bad, the character design for Sumino makes her look like a sad puppy. The two little hair swoops on either side of her head makes it look like she’s got sad puppy ears. Maybe this is a way to make her look more sad and dejected all the time. It fits with her overall character for the most part, but I think she will always remind me of a dejected puppy when I look at her.
One of the best parts of this manga is the way it looks at friendship both in terms of making friends at school and having friends online. Like I said above, this is probably one of the first mangas I’ve read that addressed this type of friendship directly and made it a major part of the story. Sumino has always had problems making friends at school and so she turns to the internet to express her loneliness in hopes that someone will notice her. After a year of posting photos and talking about her troubles at school, someone finally replied. That someone was a person going by the name of Black Rabbit. He was quickly joined by another named Mega Pig. These two quickly became a support network for Sumino, offering the advice and companionship she was lacking in real life. The internet has become an integral part of all of our lives, and I think Sumino turning to her blog for support is something we all can relate to. With the growth of social media, places like Facebook and Twitter have become places where people can share their lives and connect with people they may not be able to see in real life. I Am Here does a great job of showing just how much these connections can impact someone. When the manga starts to turn to Sumino making “real life” connections with the people around her in her class, we get to see this conflict of opinion on whether the friends you make over the internet are actually real friends. Toyama toes this line pretty well, showing that it is important to have friends you can directly rely on, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have friends online as well. As Black Rabbit’s identity is revealed, we get to see more clearly how online relationships can have real life impacts. Just like Sumino’s life was dramatically changed by the support of her online friends, Black Rabbit was given the support he needed to feel better about himself through reading her blog.
While I Am Here is a romance manga, I felt like the main focus was more on building friendships with romance coming second and more at the end of it all. This makes sense when we consider how inexperienced Sumino is just in terms of building friendships. She is severely unsure of herself, so one of the biggest focuses of the story is how she gains confidence and learns to stand up for herself. Through her hard-fought confidence, she slowly gains the support of her class and begins strengthening her relationship with Hinata, the boy who finally noticed her. It seems like Sumino barely thinks about romance until she is forced to by Hinata, probably from a mix of low self-confidence or self-worth and her focus on just trying to make friends. Even as the main conflict of the story comes into play, we see that one of it’s driving forces is friendship and the lack there of. Part of it is centered around Aya’s jealousy towards Sumino because she captured the attention of Hinata, but another side of it is also because, through her bullying, she lost the friends she had taken for granted.
When we finally delve into the romance, it’s sweet, using analogies of light and shadow to show just how much Sumino looks up to and finds support in Hinata. He is the “sun” to Sumino’s “sunflower” (which is the online name she chose for herself). While she doesn’t automatically go along with his confession and says that she just wants to stay friends for now, we also see that he seems to accept that. Though he reminds her on a couple occasions that he likes her, I don’t think he really pushes her to make a decision one way or the other even when Teru confesses. He and Hinata are both obviously unsure of themselves when it comes to love and relationships even with their popularity among the school. Hinata becomes visibly unsettled when he starts to think that he might lose her to someone else, but here again is this examination of friendship. Teru and Hinata are best friends, and while they both are trying to win the heart of Sumino, we still see this kind of mutual respect for one another and the realization of how important they are to one another. It slowly becomes this story of mutual support: Hinata and Teru support her in making friends at school and Sumino helps support both of them in strengthening their own friendship.
This manga does have its weak points though. One of the biggest ones for me was the main villain of the series, Aya, seemed to depicted as way over-the-top in her dislike of Sumino. She pretty much became a stereotypical villain for a good portion of it, even going so far as to gloat in common villain manner about her victory. For a little while, it seemed like the story was moving away from this by showing Aya dejectedly accepting her defeat, but then her bullying ramps up again and becomes even worse. I definitely think that her personality and actions could have been scaled back a little bit and it would have had the same effect. As of now, she comes off as kind of ridiculous. While she got an ending that explained why and showed her in a more human light, I don’t know if that was enough to off-set her actions and bring her down to a more relatable level. Other than this, the only other issue I had might be the over use of metaphors and comparisons throughout the manga. These do play an integral role in showing us how Sumino relates to other characters and to her situation at large, but they were starting to push the line of over-use, especially when Sumino uses them in everyday speech.
I Am Here is a sweet manga about high school romance and self-discovery that focuses on the relationship between one girl’s online friends and her desire for real-life friends. Through a building of self-confidence, she creates connections with other people and in-turn supports those around her. The art is strong, the page layout allows for some great spreads and splashes for impact, and story is fairly engaging. I would call this a good easy read for people looking for something short and uncomplicated to pick up.
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